Ethiopia braces for its biggest athletics show
With the Beijing Olympics looming competing nations are eager to test their talents against the rest of the continent before the Games in August.
With the Ethiopian Millenium celebrations still in full force, the hosts have shown that they are not only taking the Africa championships seriously by entering a star-studded squad but by the elaborate preparations to welcome more than 600 delegates from over 42 countries here for the event.
Arriving teams were met by a host of star runners including former World 10,000m champion Berhane Adere and the Sydney Olympic marathon champion Gezahegne Abera who led the visitors to the imposing Millenium Dome where a series of pop concerts that featured American queen Beyonce and Akon staged shows.
The Dome, put up by Ethiopian-born Saudi billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi, is one of the new buildings in the changing skyline to this ancient city as Ethiopia moves away from its Marxist past to embrace the new world order.
Down the road are three other new office blocks which have been constructed by Ethiopian distance athlete Haile Gebrselassie who is using his huge earnings to secure his future as an entrepreneurial businessman.
“Haile is doing a great job for us,” said Andrew, a taxi driver.
“Look at those buildings. He has helped change the landscape of our city.”
Gebrselassie will not be competing in the African championship but his absence will be less significant as the next generation of Ethiopian athletes take the field to displace their indepth home-grown talent.
Ethiopia, with the largest continent of 140 athletes is expected to dominate in the middle and long distance events with Nigeria and South Africa tipped to share the medals on offer in the sprints and field events.
Multiple world record holder Kenenisa Bekele turns up in form following his unprecedented sixth title triumph at the world cross country championship in Edinburgh in March.
Bekele, who is also the reigning Olympic 10,000m champion, will contest the race at home for the first time in four years alongside world junior champion Ibrahim Jeylan and the African champion Moses Kipsiro of Uganda.
Olympic 5,000m champion Meseret Defar is also favoured to dominate her event against fellow Ethiopian Meselech Melkamu, who won the 3,000 metres silver medal at the World indoor championship in Valencia in March.
Traditional rivals Kenya has sent a relatively young team after the established runners opted out of the African championships to prepare for the upcoming outdoor Grand Prix competition.
The Kenyan team will be spearheaded by the junior world 800 metre champion Daniel Rudisha and former world junior champion Asbel Kiprop who will run the 1,500m.
The men’s 800 metres is is set to be a hot contested affair between Rudisha and Sudan’s Abubaker Kaki Khamis who won the country’s first world senior gold medal at the indoor championships in Valencia.